It never fails that in each of my high school religion classes someone asks, “Can a non-Christian go to heaven?”
It is an important question that preys on many of us. We have seen people of heroic moral virtue in other faiths, like Gandhi. Most of us know people who are not in the Church or have left the Church. We worry about their salvation and want to be assured that we will be with them in paradise.
So can a non-Christian go to heaven? The short answer is yes.
But the follow-up question of “How can a non-Christian go to heaven?” is a bit more complicated.
There is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.” (John 14:6)
He is not a way, He is The Way. There is no path to heaven that does not go through Jesus Christ.
Some people will immediately object and say that many billions of people don’t believe this. But that is irrelevant. A thing’s truth is not based on how many people believe it, but on whether or not it accurately reflects reality. Also, if there is another way to get to heaven besides Jesus, then that would mean that God the Father is a sadist and Christ was a fool.
The cross makes this so. If I can be saved through the Dharma or the Koran or just being nice to people, then God the Father made His Son suffer and die a horrible, torturous death for no reason. But the Father is not a sadist and Christ is not a fool, so we can only achieve salvation through Jesus.
So what about non-Christians?
As a child I first came to understand how this could be when I read the last Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle. In the book, there is the Christ-lion, Aslan. But the Calormenes worship a demon god named Tash. One Calormene named Emeth desires to serve his god honorably.. Upon seeing Aslan, he approaches to kill him, and the following happens:
But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…. [Tash and I] are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted… [U]nless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.
Here we see something akin to what Karl Rahner would call “Anonymous Christianity,” where those who do not know Christ by name still give their lives over to Goodness. Since all Goodness comes from Christ, they turn themselves over to Christ anonymously. For these people, Lewis sees the possibility of Salvation. Lewis puts it this way:
…Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet in the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.
We know that people are saved and that the major religions share elements of the Truth with Christianity, so Lewis allows for the possibility of non-Christians to enter the Kingdom. Emeth is very different in his character than the villains of the story. They reject Christ/Aslan not through honest misunderstanding of the truth, but by blind devotion to their evil passions. They did not listen to the call to virtue.
Honest rejection of Christ, however mistaken, will be forgiven and healed- ‘whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him.’ But to evade the Son of Man; to look the other way; to pretend you haven’t noticed’ to become suddenly absorbed in the something on the other side of the street… this is a different matter. You may not be certain yet whether you ought to be Christian; but you do know you ought to be a Man, not an ostrich hiding its head in the sands.
Several decades ago, theologian Fr. Karl Rahner articulated what Lewis pointed to in his theory of Anonymous Christianity. In short, if someone, through no fault of his or her own, does not know of Christ and His Church, yet still strives to live a good life, then it is possible for them to be saved.
That is a long definition, and every part of it is important. If we all desire God, then how is it possible that we all don’t find him?
The new Catechism from the US Bishops says in its first chapter that there are three reasons why someone may legitimately not find the truth of the faith:
- Ignorance. Here we are talking about invincible ignorance A fair God is not going to hold you accountable for something beyond your control. If you’ve never heard of Jesus, that is not your fault. This is not the same as willful ignorance, where you choose not to know. This is illustrated when when the commercials come on the TV that show the starving, sick children in the world, and we change the channel so that we don’t feel badly. We choose to be ignorant so that our lives aren’t effected. If we intentionally avoid the question of God because how it would inconvenience us, then this is not a legitimate excuse.
- Scandal. Imagine your only or biggest interaction with the Church is through those who harm and oppress you. Or imagine your most impactful experience of the Church is through the abuse of a member of the clergy. Is it possible that this is an overwhelming impediment to your coming to know the truth of the faith? Yes, it is possible.
- Suffering. The crosses we carry can bring us closer to the Lord, but the mystery of suffering, especially when it seems to our dim human reason to be pointless, can be a large stumbling block.
It is possible that each of these could lead to an impassable barrier between a person and the Church. Notice I am being very vague in the language, because this is something that can only be judged by God in the individual. I cannot tell if someone’s ignorance is invincible or if they are using scandal as an excuse for dodging the faith. But God knows, and we should leave that judgement to Him.
But if there is a real impediment to knowing Christ explicitly, the person must still live a life a virtue because they are giving their life to Christ as best they know Him. As Lewis said, this is not to say that all religions are equal paths to God. All things must still go through Christ, even if anonymously
Imagine you found out you had a long-lost child. You tracked them down and wanted to judge whether or not they were a good and faithful child. You wouldn’t base it on how many Christmas cards you got, because they have never met you. Instead, you would judge their character based on how they treated their parents as best they knew them.
It is the same for God. Those who don’t know Him by name but still live a life striving after goodness may be saved. Notice it is “may” and not “will,” because just like Christians, non-Christians will be judged by their choices and why they made them. But if they strive for goodness, then they are, in reality, striving for the source of goodness.
And that source we call God.
Copyright © 2012, W.L. Grayson